Sun | Oct 22, 2017

Orville Higgins | The 'recency syndrome'

Published:Friday | January 6, 2017 | 12:00 AM

One of the things I have learnt in my time as a sports journalist is the tendency of people to place greater weight on things that happen in the last part of a game. I have dubbed it the 'recency syndrome'. My theory is that the later the occurrence in the game (which by extension means the event's most recent) the greater the prominence that people attach to it. It is wrong, it is illogical, but as far as human nature goes, it's entirely understandable. Human beings, unless specifically trained otherwise, have relatively short attention spans. The average human doesn't concentrate on anything for too long, and because of this, they will pay greater attention to the last part of any human endeavour.

Script writers for movies know this. Even if the middle of the show is mundane and boring, they go for dramatic or interesting endings. Lawyers who have had to address a jury know that the first and last things said are more likely to stick with the jury. Teachers reinforce the whole lesson at the end of the session, knowing it will be better remembered then.

The recency syndrome operates on us at every level. An artiste performing on stage will save his biggest hit for last, because he knows that will define his performance far more with the patrons and critics than if he did it earlier.

The recency syndrome defines how sports people discuss sports to a larger extent than we realise. It is the recency syndrome why you have people claiming that Carlos Brathwaite's four sixes in the last over of a game was more impressive than Marlon Samuels' 85 off 66 balls in the same game. It is illogical that a man who makes 34 off ten balls can be said to have contributed more impressively than 85 off 66. But the recency syndrome often doesn't take logic into account. It is the recency syndrome why people argue with me that points in the last two minutes of a game in basketball are more valuable than those scored in the first two minutes. Clearly, it makes no sense. A basketball game is won by the amalgamation of points from the tip-off to the last whistle. No point then can be more valuable than any, but the people who are slaves to the recency syndrome won't accept that.




It is the recency syndrome why Javon Francis ran the best race of his life and still gets blamed. In fact, he ran better than all his teammates, and indeed did a faster leg than anybody in the race and is still told that it is he who 'give weh the race'. By any logical and objective standard, Javon should have been praised in that famous 4x400 a few years ago. It is criminal to pressure a man who does his personal best, but his sin was running the anchor leg, the leg that would be most remembered because it was the most 'recent' in the eyes of pundits.

A footballer who misses a goal in the dying minutes of a game will be far more heavily criticised by media and public alike than one who misses in the first few minutes. Clearly, that ought not be. Goals scored or missed in the first few minutes have the same ability to decide the outcome as goals in time added on, but football fans, even without being aware of it, are mostly victims of the recency syndrome.

Sometimes, I don't come down too hard on the layman for being victims to this syndrome. Even seasoned professional broadcasters make the same mistake.

Three years ago, San Antonio Spurs were leading Miami Heat 3-2 in the NBA finals. That was when Lebron James was in Miami. In a potentially title-deciding game six, Spurs were leading by 3 points with just seconds on the clock. Chris Bosh made a pass to Ray Allen, who was stationed out wide. If Allen missed the shot, Spurs would win the game and the NBA title. Allen nailed a three-pointer and forced the game into overtime. Miami won game six in the overtime period, and forced a game 7 which they won. For months, Skip Bayliss, legendary ESPN broadcaster kept saying Allen saved Miami. He put a greater premium on what he did than what Lebron did in the same game. In that game Lebron had 32 points, 11 assists and ten rebounds! Allen had a mere 9 points. Lebron was by far the most outstanding Miami player that night, but what the public, including a seasoned and well-respected broadcaster remembered was the last three seconds. The recency syndrome at its most graphic! The tricky part is that this tendency won't change. It's simply human nature.

- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to